I was listening to one of Anabelle Bugatti’s awesome We Heart Therapy videos, and she was talking about when she’s working with a Withdrawer who is “really deep in the back of the cave” with their emotions and affect. And they appear very self-sufficient, not even needing much connection.
So many Withdrawers do have access to their internal worlds, and as Anabelle said, we just need to scratch beneath the surface a little bring that out. But for some, it can feel like they are absolutely blocked from their emotions and their internal experience.
In these more rare instances, my mistake has been to try to evoke more vulnerability from their partner in session, to try to get the Withdrawer to feel moved. And, if I’m being honest, to try and get the Withdrawer to see how serious this is. I’m sometimes thinking, “If you don’t wake the f-up right now, this person will leave you!”
Debi Scimeca-Diaz named this beautifully in this video, saying, “We (the therapist) see this beautiful vulnerability and think their partner will love this – how could you not?” But the reality is that they are still caught in this confusing cycle, it’s not reading to them the same way it’s reading to us.
When I see a partner's pain and vulnerability seem like it doesn't affect their partner, I can feel SO stuck. It's so counter to how I operate that I can genuinely start to believe all the bad things in the cycle, too - this person doesn't have feelings, this person doesn't care anymore. It takes a lot of reminding myself that this IS the cycle, that when the Withdrawer sees their partner's pain, they are having an automatic reaction that doesn't look great.
Luckily, my amazing supervisor Felicia helped me see that I can name the, “looking fine, staying neutral," as the actual action tendency.
So in Step 2 it might sound like me reflecting:
Me: So right now, when you’re hearing Jane get upset at how bad she feels the relationship is, what happens for you?
Withdrawer: I don’t know, I just don’t think it’s that bad. I just think it’s a rough patch.
Me: So if I’m following you right, you tell yourself, “This isn’t so bad, things aren’t as bad as she thinks, we’re ok,” is that right?
Withdrawer: Yeah, I just think she’s being dramatic.
Me: Mmmm, it doesn’t really make sense to you why the woman you love is so upset? It’s kind of confusing?
Withdrawer: Yeah, I just don’t think it’s that bad.
Me: So when you see Jane get upset about not feeling as connected to you, you kind of think, “hey, this isn’t that bad, we're ok,” and then what do you automatically do next?
Withdrawer: I just don’t feel that upset, I try to change the subject, move on.
Me: You don’t feel so upset, and you show her, I’m ok , I’m fine? Trying to get her to be fine, too?
Withdrawer: Yeah, I want her to see we’re not that bad, so I just try to move on.
Me: Mmmhmm, so you kind of show her, I’m not so affected by this? You show her, I’m not upset? And a little underneath that is trying to get her to see things as not so bad?
Me: Can you share this with her? It’s true, I look unaffected when you’re upset, I look fine, I’m trying to show you things aren’t so bad?
In an ideal world, I’d be unpacking more, repeating things more, but I often find with my really closed off Withdrawers that this process feels quite intense for them. In the beginning (and by beginning, I mean like the first 6 months, sometimes), I try not to flood them with staying too long in the interpersonal if I feel like they can’t handle it.
What my eventual goal would be is to help them see their “looking unaffected” as the action tendency, and the very thing that confirms the message to their partner that they (the Pursuer) is the only one who cares, and is hurting in the cycle. It’s sometimes hard to catch the attachment frame with Withdrawers, so here I’d be trying to tie that action tendency to not wanting their partner to be so upset. It’s hard when what we have to start with is, “She’s crazy! Everything’s fine, she’s just making a mountain out of a molehill.” Doesn’t sound like much attachment in there, right? But I try to tease out what might be motivating this person’s action tendency, with the idea that they don’t actually want to lose this relationship.
It helped me so much to think of the "looking unaffected" AS the action tendency, I hope this is helpful for you, too!